Trained not by professors but through a lifetime of introspection, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus has a keen understanding not just of self but of the way self evolves.
Charles Darwin would correct me, saying that evolution occurs at the population level, not the individual level. But identity is different. It’s not a physical form bound by ligaments and supported by bone. Identity is completely amorphous, and changing identity doesn’t require altering genetic code or even the erosion of structure. Identity is susceptible to almost instantaneous change, sometimes even at the hands of fickle forces like human suggestion.
“I have kind of always been at peace with who I am, and I think that’s why there’s such a stark difference now knowing that other people think they know who I am, or there’s this version of me going out that doesn’t necessarily coincide with who I am," says Dacus via phone from the road, headed to Montreal for a break from tour. She performs with Deau Eyes and Holden Laurence at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, at the Grog Shop
. "It’s not that the media portrays me much differently than how I really am. It’s because I have a strong idea of who I am that I can tell the difference."
Dacus attributes her strong sense of self to being adopted. In that way, she was nebulous, free to develop as she would, not bound by genetic ties to anyone around her. She also credits her adoptive parents for enforcing her individualism from the time she was young.
“I think that my parents were really good about not telling me that I was childish when I was a kid," she says. "They weren’t like ‘you’re a kid, you’re dumb.’ They always let me speak. Whenever I made something, they really took it in as something worthwhile. If I ever wanted to try something, they let me try it. I think my parents did a good job of not standing in the way of who I just always was."
Artists create small records of themselves with each work they create, which serve as rare glimpses into their identity at a single point in time. As fans, we stitch individual works together in an attempt to understand the artist, but we can never truly know them.
“If you write something and release it, whether it’s music or fiction or a personal essay, that is something you made in a particular moment, and it’s hard to remember that people are dynamic, and they change, like all the time,” Dacus says. “And I have this problem with my favorite creators as well, I can hardly conceptualize the fact that they were only the person who wrote the book that I love in that moment and [now] they might be a totally different person. Meanwhile, I’ve never known them, I just know the book. Making that separation between the work and the creator is kind of disorienting. It’s a constant question of how to figure out that dynamic.”
Dacus has always kept a close record of her own identity in the form of a journal. If it hadn’t been for a strange whirlwind of events in 2016, it’s quite possible that her songs never would have been heard outside of a few casual shows in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
Although she had been writing since age 10, Dacus had never recorded any of her songs until her friend Jacob Blizard requested her help with a college project. The resulting album, No Burden
, was picked up by local Richmond label EggHunt Records. Leading track “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” started to gain traction, and indie labels clamored to sign Dacus. She chose Matador, the long-time label of Yo La Tengo, one of her personal favorite artists.
Her second album, Historian
, was released this past March. Dacus’ sumptuous, mature contralto switches between sweet ballads and fuzzy yet tame indie rock with ease, and Historian
has the extra boost of a full backing band.
Dacus continues to ride the growing wave of her success (she plays Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival this year), the tide has changed; rather than being the fan who dissects the identities of artists she looks up to, she’s the subject of others’ dissection. Previously accustomed to being the only one taking a pen to her own life, now she faces the analyses of others.
“I think that part of the issue at hand is that people are viewing me, taking pictures of me, writing about me, and that’s a really easy identity to take on, the identity that other people have made for me," she says. "And I have to remember to not do that, and just stay in touch with who I am. But the evidence is overwhelming that I am the person that is documented through all these other avenues. That’s part of why I still journal, because I feel like I need to document who I am truly, in the moment, just to keep a handle on my identity.”
If an artists’ works are just snapshots in time, disconnected more and more from their creator with each passing second, how will Dacus feel about her own songs five years from now, or ten? It’s far too soon to tell, as her first album has only been out for two short years. But she seems to address the issue in “Night Shift,” a track from Historians
about avoiding an ex: “You got a nine to five, so I’ll take the night shift/And I’ll never see you again if I can help it/In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers.”
Dacus developed an awareness and understanding of mortality at a young age, due in large part to her Christian upbringing. Although she no longer ascribes to any religious belief, she thinks that the sooner one comes to terms with death, the better, because it frees you up to live. She seems to understand the short life of her own words in the same way.
“Earlier, I was talking about how it’s hard to conceptualize that people change,” she says. “I guess in this situation I can’t conceptualize how I will change. I know that if I say something now and people will read it, this might be the only interview they ever read with me, so maybe next time I will say something different. I guess that is my answer, I could tell you anything right now, but the fact that I will change, that’s kind of the answer. Anything I say is, you know, silly.”
Lucy Dacus, Deau Eyes, Holden Laurence, 9 p.m. Saturday, July 28, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $15, grogshop.gs